What has Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community for “abominable heresies” and “monstrous acts”, have to say to 21st-century Orthodox Jews? In a forthcoming course at the London School of Jewish Studies, I will suggest a great deal (hopefully without getting excommunicated myself).
This might sound shocking to many. Spinoza, after all, sought to replace the personal God of the Bible with the impersonal God of Nature. He saw the Bible as the work of man, Judaism as parochial, free will as an illusion and reason (rather than revelation) as the source of truth and path to salvation.
It is hard to imagine ideas that pose more of a challenge to contemporary Orthodoxy, yet there is a relevance and spiritual power to Spinoza that is difficult to ignore. His ideas, radical in his time and influential even today, shake us from our complacency and call on us to up our religious game.
While most Orthodox Jews have been wary of Spinoza, a handful of modern rabbis have been drawn to him. In his diary, Rav Kook, Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, famously made a connection between Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, and the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, suggesting that Spinoza’s ideas could be made compatible with Judaism.
Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn, an early 20th-century figure, also studied and quoted Spinoza, described him as being righteous and of “pure heart” and refused to treat him as a heretic. Recently, some rabbis, while rejecting much of what Spinoza has to say, have nevertheless called for the ban on him to be lifted.
So what specifically can Orthodox Jews take from Spinoza? First, Spinoza provides a useful rationalist critique of popular conceptions of God. Like Maimonides, to whom he directly refers, Spinoza rejects any idea of God which views Him in human terms, but takes this rejection one step further. For Spinoza, God is not a being but Being itself, of which we are a part. We exist in God in body and mind. He also believed that, in order to know God, we need to understand Being in all of its intricacy and diversity, including through science.
The idea that there is only God is not a million miles away from notions expressed by kabbalistic and later Chasidic thinkers living around the same time as Spinoza. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, for example, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, describes God as “permeat[ing] all worlds, both upper and lower” and how “everything is of no reality whatever in His presence” (Tanya, chapter 33).
Spinoza’s conceptions do not accord precisely with such Jewish thinkers, but his methodology might well form the basis for a rational mysticism founded on reason but reflective of tradition, which acknowledges the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.
Secondly, Spinoza’s psychology highlights the importance of reason on an individual and social level. Spinoza appreciated that as individuals we are primarily driven by our passions. These are most often generated from events external to us, rather than from our internal “essence”. The task is to neutralise negative passions like greed, envy and enmity, by understanding through reason their causes and triggers, and generating more powerful positive emotions and feelings to replace them. This is early cognitive behavioural psychology applied in an ethical context.
Spinoza’s call to reason also relates to society more broadly and is of crucial relevance to our own turbulent times, where for example in politics and on social media, logic and dispassionate argument have been forced to give way to emotions such as nostalgia, fear, anger and hate, which appear to be driving events at a dizzying pace. Spinoza warns us of the dangers of living by our gut.
Thirdly, Spinoza reminds us of the unifying aspect of reason. Every religion and every culture speaks its own language, unique to itself and untranslatable to outsiders, aimed at ensuring obedience to a particular set of values. For Spinoza, there is nothing bad in this provided that such values promote what he calls “natural religion”, that is love of God, charity and love of one’s neighbour.
Religion and revelation therefore have their place, but it is reason that provides the common language of humanity. It is the way we reach beyond the confines of our own narrow groupings, the means by which we test ideas and progress, the shaper of shared values, and the glue that binds. Without reason we are back at the Tower of Babel, speaking incomprehensibly across one another in different tongues, society crumbles.
These ideas feature too in our own rationalist tradition, which teaches that there are two Torahs: Torat Hashem, our unique revelation unfolding through the generations, and Torat ha-Adam, the Torah of humankind, reason. Spinoza, like Maimonides before him, reminds us that we need both.
Dr Harris Bor is a barrister and adjunct lecturer at LSJS. His five-week course on Spinoza runs from February 1